Jo March made me want to be a writer. When Jo March escaped to her attic to eat apples and write stories, I did the same. And when she announced to her sisters and her friend Laurie that her greatest wish was to “write out of a magic inkstand,” to become famous and independent, I recognized a true sister. In fact, for years I imagined myself walking into a dusty office with a manuscript tied up in brown paper and ribbon, where some cigar-chomping editor would offer for it on the spot. If only.
It didn’t take long to outgrow that fantasy or the book, for that matter, and Little Women was relegated to my pre-feminist Era of Ignorance, and languished there for years. But a couple of summers ago I caught the Katherine Hepburn version of the movie late one night on TCM, and I was thoroughly charmed. I dug out my old hardcover and stayed up three nights solid reading it. And when a colleague gave birth to a baby girl not long after, I impulsively bought her a copy of the book.
As I thought about what to inscribe in it, however, I had a twinge of post-feminist guilt. Wasn’t Little Women merely a sentimental novel that Alcott had cranked out to support her family since her father, Bronson Alcott, had driven them into poverty? Doesn’t the story trumpet the virtues of female submission and the repression of anger? And let’s face it, aren’t the Beth scenes just a little over the top? Well, yes. But that doesn’t keep me from loving the book, and even now my eyes still get moist every time Beth drops those mittens out the window.
In the end though, it is of course Jo who is the heart of the book. And it is Jo, despite her mother’s admonishments, her sentimental pronouncements and Victorian trappings, who taught me that obedience is difficult and anger is necessary.
–That you don’t have to say yes to the first guy who asks.
–That hair is overrated, and sisterhood is more than powerful–it’s a veritable life force.
–That it’s possible to love a man who doesn’t look like your Ken doll, and that even if your dress is patched, you can still dance at the party.
Most importantly, Jo March showed me that even back in the 19th century there were girls like me: bookworms who found the stuff of novels more real than the lives we lived every day, and who dreamed of creating such worlds ourselves.
The little girl to whom I gave Little Women is still too young for it, but I wonder if she too will cry over Beth and root for Jo as she works on her stories. I like to imagine her in about fourteen or fifteen years, walking up a set of creaky attic stairs with apples in her pockets, ready to write some Gothic tales of her own.
♥ ♥ ♥
*An earlier version of this post first appeared on Red Room